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New York City
October 2002

Leadership in Our Schools: The Principal Part
by Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D.

Over this century, countless “magic bullets” have been suggested for reforming our schools. In the 1920s, a progressive movement sought to eliminate curricula and external standards. In the 1950s, we were advised that the answer was to create fewer, larger schools out of the many, smaller ones—yet today, we see many larger schools being divided into smaller learning centers. We’ve gone through “relevance,” “technology,” “school uniforms” and other concepts du jour that, by themselves—so people thought—would have the power to revolutionize education and transform our schools.

All have been important ideas; all have contributed, in their own special way, to improving education. But none has focused on a crucial element in school reform: leadership. It seems an obvious concept. Leadership is vital in all areas of our society: government, business, leading a baseball team, conducting a symphony. The study of leadership has grown as an academic discipline, through the work of such individuals as John P. Kotter, Henry Mintzberg, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and others. But the principles of leadership have not been suitably adapted to our schools. While effective classrooms require the leadership of the teacher, effective schools require the leadership of the principal.

Indeed, our principals are eager and willing to take that responsibility. But what has the actual job of the school principal become today? Readers of Education Week may recall a recent article in which several principals discussed their duties. These include building the staff—and frequently running baby-sitting facilities for them; conducting adult literacy programs so parents can better help their children with their studies; dealing with children with emotional or behavioral problems; following and implementing federal rules regarding special education; and taking on such other roles as union negotiator, community and parent public relations liaison; master of playground rules, bus schedules and budgets; and, in some cases, emergency plumber.

School leadership today is upside down. It’s become 80 percent operations and 20 percent academic leadership. That’s looking at education through the wrong end of the telescope. Unfortunately, our current school environment dictates it—and too many principals and school superintendents have been trained to fit that mold. This is particularly distressing given our nation’s recent “No Child Left Behind” legislation. If our goal is academic excellence for all our children, then our educational leaders have the responsibility—and must be given the tools and training—to carry out that mandate.

The term principal, as you may know, is shortened from the original concept of the position as principal teacher. It’s the principal’s role to be a school’s instructional leader. That role, in turn, encompasses many elements—for example, working in collaboration with teachers in establishing the educational climate for the entire school building; disaggregating data so that they know what is happening in each and every classroom; assessing existing and proposed teaching tools to determine which are succeeding, which are not, and which are not likely to; working with the teaching staff day in and day out—supporting and encouraging those individuals who really care, and helping to strengthen the skills of those who desperately need assistance. The job, overall, is ensuring that the necessary environment and tools are in place. Principal means, quite literally, taking the principal role of leadership on the team that contributes to effective learning. That team must also include parents and members of the community, who, so often, are eager to help if only they were personally called upon and guided in making their specific contributions. But seeing where they can help, and personally enlisting that help, takes vision, and then translating that vision into specifics—all of which are other aspects of leadership.

The challenge of instructional leadership is exciting and psychologically rewarding—which is why so many dedicated men and women want to choose it as a profession. The reality of the role, however—particularly in terms of workload, stress and pay—turns out too often to be another matter. As a result, surveys show, many teachers are reluctant to train to become principals. As today’s principals retire, and as the need for school administrators grows (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected an increase in that need of 10 to 20 percent through 2005), our nation’s educational system faces trouble. Thankfully there are foundations such as The Eli Broad and Wallace-Readers Digest Funds that are very actively involved in providing better preparation for supervisors. City and State systems have to design a systemic approach to solving this problem. This would include requiring graduate schools of education to play a more meaningful role in their preparation of supervisors. One idea I’d like to see implemented is “building a bench” within a district—similar in concept to building a bench on a football or baseball  team.  In  this  concept,  teachers and potential administrators in the district would be trained in instructional leadership, right in the schools and under the guidance of respected presiding or former principals, in order to build their practical knowledge and experience of what the job takes. The “heir apparent” would be in place to ensure continuity in any school change that has occurred.

I’m pleased to see that one organization, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), is already taking sturdy steps in this direction. It recently published a handbook, Leading Learning Communities: Standards for What Principals Should Know and Be Able to Do, detailing principals’ responsibilities, with emphasis on instructional leadership.

The NAESP publication, among other things, identifies a number of standards that redefine such leadership for today’s principals. These focus on leading schools in a way that puts students and professional development at the center; promoting the academic success of all students; creating and demanding rigorous content and instruction; using multiple sources of data as a diagnostic tool toward the goal of instructional improvement; and actively engaging the community to create shared responsibility for student and school success. The report also describes ways in which policymakers can offer improved support for school principals.

Central to raising our nation’s academic achievement are our teachers. In New York City for example, the United Federation of Teachers, in response to requests by their teachers for curriculum in all the subject areas, assumed a leadership role by working with the leaders in the city schools, and published a curriculum for teaching English Language Arts (K-12). With this information, principals can work with their teachers to build the capacity for their students to successfully meet the ELA standards. Pivotal for success in this process is the school principal. Let us properly prepare them to do the job that has to be done—and give them the environment and tools they need to fulfill their mission to be the principal teacher.#

Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D., is senior vice president for research and development at McGraw-Hill Education, a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Formerly a teacher and administrator in New York City’s public school system, she recently served as Regent of Judicial District 1 in New York 

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